WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
Frost has yet to lace the pumpkins but anyone that watches the ways of nature knows autumn has arrived, a season of transition, rich with wonders and beauty. Restless winds bring cascading rainfalls of this year’s plentiful black walnut and oak nut crops, and carries aloft the fluffy seeds freed from milkweed pods. Cattails are browning and rattle in the breezes, and under the cover of darkness, white-footed mice harvest the ‘fluff’ of the cattail to line their homes.
Monarch butterflies continue their perilous drift south and soon our ruby-throat hummingbirds, chimney swifts, tree swallows and osprey will have departed for warmer landscapes. Sandhill Cranes are starting their pre-migration fall feasting and forming fantastic flocks in secluded wetlands and fallow farm fields. Sassafras leaves are already tinged with fiery-orange and in a few weeks the sugar maples will begin their transformation to gold. The leaves of poison sumac and poison ivy are dressing in dramatic shades of crimson, but they do not lose their potent punch of misery and woe with their new wardrobe.
Turtles and northern water snakes bask motionlessly on partially submerged logs near great carpets of duckweed. In these early days of autumn our native Massasauga rattlesnake, a protected species and the only venomous snake in Oakland County, catches late afternoon rays on sunny patches of land and trails frequented by hikers. Antlered bucks are on the move. Raccoons raid the remains of sweet corn crops and red squirrels continue their endless harvest of tree nuts. Skunks feast on grasshoppers, grubs and underground yellow jacket nests and scent the night air at the scene of their failed road crossings. Leopard frogs leap through moist meadows near marshes, and with near perfect camouflage, hide in plain sight. Groundhogs feast on what’s left of gardens and some take to the trees to munch on mulberry leaves.
Crickets, katydids and grasshoppers sing their final serenades that started in late summer, only to fall permanently silent after the first hard frost. Coyotes yip in the night, perhaps just territorial proclamations or a saying of goodbye and good luck to their dispersing young. Great Horned Owls greet the pre-dawn hours of late September with hoots from their tall white pine perches, a song rapidly interrupted by flocks of raucous crows that mob their site.
A few spring peepers now tentatively sing with low-volume peeps not from the marshes where they jingled by the hundreds of thousands in early spring, but from adjacent woodlands. Why sing now? Some wildlife biologists believe the hours of present daylight and the changing temperatures mimic spring conditions and a bit of confusion sets in before they burrow into the earth for a winter nap. Make sure to listen for them while the weather is still warm.
I’d rather believe they are simply saying good bye to the seasons of summer and perhaps celebrating their own survival in a landscape where tiny creatures are so often consumed. There’s no doubt the richness of autumn is the pure pleasure of exploring the diverse network of trails and natural wonders of Oakland County, for as John Muir penned so eloquently, “In every walk in nature one receives far more than he seeks.” I think he had autumn in mind.
Text and photos by Jonathan Schechter, Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Parks.
Visit Oakland County Parks for information on all 13 Oakland County Parks including trails, camping and special autumn offerings for the family.